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Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Martian



The Martian is as unusual an anomaly as a human being surviving alone on Mars for over a year: a major Hollywood blockbuster where there are no obvious villains, no turns or betrayals, and where every character is an stalwart example of the best and brightest a person can be, all working together to solve a seemingly insurmountable problem. The best and brightest of all is Matt Damon, in maximum movie star mode as astronaut Mark Watney, a heroic botanist accidentally left behind and thought dead when his team is forced to abort their 31 day Mars mission. His forlorn crew mates, including Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Michael Pena, and their commander Jessica Chastain, mourn his loss, and the Director of NASA, Jeff Daniels, announces to the world that Mark Watney died on Mars. Except Watney is very much alive, and must find a way to continue to survive alone on a hostile alien world with the supplies he has on hand until he can contact NASA and be rescued. The next mission to Mars is scheduled in four years. What can he do? How can he stay alive? Watney's answer to all his problems: "science the shit out of it."

Problem: Food. Watney realizes he has enough food intended orginally for six people but even with rationing, he'll run out long before rescue comes. Solution: become the first and greatest farmer Mars has ever seen, using the crew's discarded feces and Martian dirt to grow crops of potatoes. Problem: Water.  Solution: Luckily, Watney knows the formula to make water and only manages to blow himself up once in the process. Problem: communicating with NASA. Solution: Watney, takes his land rover out on a dangerous excursion and finds the Pathfinder probe that arrived on Mars long before he did. Its radio linkup to NASA still works. Voila! Conversation and email are now possible. Watney's efforts to survive are simply ingenious. But even if nothing else goes wrong -- and lots of things go terribly wrong -- Watney is still months, if not years, away from rescue. 

On Earth, a team of dedicated minds at NASA, including Sean Bean, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis, and lead by Chiwetel Ejiofor, put their giant brains and resources to work to bring Watney home. The Martian gives us a rosy and inviting view of NASA, where despite politics and internal squabbling, plans are made to rescue the first man ever to survive on Mars alone. When NASA's efforts to save time and cut corners end in mission failure, The Martian offers an extraordinary solution, giving us a glimpse of what can happen if the Chinese space program and NASA are able to work together. "This is not about politics, strictly cooperation between space agencies," the Chinese announce, extraordinarily. Like Apollo 13, which The Martian is a spiritual successor of, space and all that can go wrong in space, is the villain and the problem, and the welcome message is human beings, working together, can overcome anything.

Directed by Sir Ridley Scott, who delivers his tightest and most crowd-pleasing film in a decade,  The Martian is a prime example of how to adapt a bestselling novel. Screenwriter Drew Goddard retained most of the ingenious and humorous plot and character beats of the novel, often verbatim, while Sir Ridley uses the power of cinema to deliver rousing emotional moments. The third act attempt to rescue Watney is pure hero stuff, as his crew mates, who turned their Hermes space ship around back to Mars, put their own lives on the line to fetch their friend.  A malnourished and emaciated Watney, strapped to a stripped down tin can missing a roof and rocketed through the Martian atmosphere to literally be caught by his friends doing "a flyby," is a white knuckle, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. Like Guardians of the Galaxy a year ago, The Martian embraces (with a lot of complaints from Watney) pop hits from the 1970s, which has now become Hollywood's go-to soundtrack for deep space adventure. One hopes The Martian reignites public interest in NASA and space exploration. The Martian shines a brilliant light on what can be achieved by intelligent people from all walks of life working united towards a common goal. It's simply a joy to watch a movie called The Martian and come out of it feeling really good about humanity.